As preached by Timothy O'Day.
1) Directs us to what is good (1-4).
2) Exposes our fallen nature (5-7).
3) Leads us to God's mercy (8).
God’s Good Word for Wretched Sinners and Saints
1 of 22 in a (disrupted) series through Psalm 119
When we looked at Psalm 32 and 33, I noted for us that everyone aims at being blessed, we all just disagree on what blessing is and how we can have it. I had a good friend in High School who, after coming to faith, started pouring over the Bible. His dad noticed this newly developed behavior and told his son not to get “too into that.” Why did he say that? Because he knew that if his son took the Bible seriously, it would dramatically change the direction of his life. He did not view the Bible as leading to blessing for his son, so he warned him about it.
What can we say to such thinking? Psalm 119 is an answer to it. Psalm 119 is all about the reality that blessing is knowing God and that we know God through his word. According to the Bible, including Psalm 119, blessing is not a subjective feeling but an objective reality. Being blessed is not based on how you feel but on how you stand before God: guilty or innocent; enemy or child. If you are innocent and counted as his child, then you are blessed? Psalm 16:11 clues us into why right standing with God is blessing,
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Why is right standing with God the definition of being blessed? Because there is no greater treasure than knowing God and being with him. Every pleasure in creation is a shadow of his goodness; everything that you treasure is residue of his glory; everything that is good is poorly mimicking him. To know God is to be blessed.
And, since knowing God is what it means to be blessed, Psalm 119 rightly adores the word of God since it is how we know him. Psalm 119 is a poem that consists of 22 stanzas, one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And each stanza consists of eight verses with each verse beginning with one letter from the Hebrew alphabet. All of the lines in the aleph stanza begin with aleph; all of the lines in the bet stanza begin with bet, and so on. It is a poetic feat aimed and showing the sufficiency, beauty, and wonder of God’s word. The longest Psalm in the Bible is a celebration of the Bible. What does it show us?
God’s Word Directs Us to What is Good
The psalmist joyfully recognizes the fact that obedience leads to blessing. He stresses this in the first four verses…
In verse 1 we see this, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!”
Verse 2 continues the theme,“Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart.”
And then, in verse 3, the psalmist continues to lay up the qualifications for blessing by saying that blessed are those “who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!”
As you look at these verses, you see different terms used like “law of the LORD,” and “testimonies,” and “his ways.” All of these refer to the same thing: God’s revealed instruction and word to man. We can’t miss this if we are going to understanding Psalm 119. Some of these words, particularly the word “law,” can be easily misunderstood by us. Usually we hear the word law and we think of it as a cold command. But the word for law, which is Torah, is not just something that is legal. It has the wider meaning of instruction. And being that this is instruction from God, it is good. It isn’t cold, but highly relational. You see this in passages like Deuteronomy 4:5-8. There Moses writes,
“See, I have taught you status and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all theses statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
Israel did not view God’s instruction as a burden but as a pathway of fellowship with the Lord of glory. That’s clear in Deuteronomy, Psalm 119, and elsewhere in Scripture.
God’s Commands are Good and for Our Good
Verse 4 puts a capstone on this as the psalmist declares that God has commanded that his precepts be kept carefully. This isn’t because God is a tyrant. He demands that we carefully obey him because his commands are for our good. Verses 1-4 show us, then, that God’s commands are good and given for our good.
Just as getting a text from someone you love telling you what part of the airport you are in, you do not view these directions as a burden. They make you excited because they lead you to be with the one you love.
God’s instruction directs us away from sin, which separates us from him, and conforms us to his likeness. God’s command “Be holy for I am holy,” is not some wicked standard. It is a call for you to be with him. It is a call to have the fellowship with God for which you were created.
In light of this, we should view commands that warn us of sin in the same way that we should view the command not to drink a cup of arsenic. If I called out to you, “Don’t drink that cup because it has arsenic in it,” you would not think I was being a tyrant. You would consider that command to be an act of love. Likewise, if I am hosting a large party and I say to you, “it will start at 8pm. You will want to bring a chair so that you can sit on it while we watch fireworks.” You wouldn’t be angry at my directions or think that I was being domineering. You would recognize my my instruction as kindness.
God’s commands and his instruction are like this. We are standing in the darkness and he is handing us a light by which we can see the path of life and avoid the ditches of destruction.
So What’s the Problem?
Why, then, is it so easy to view God’s instruction as a burden? Why is it that, even if I can intellectually assent to the reality that his commands are good, that I do not want to keep them? Why is it that I can recognize that lust will not lead to anything good; I can counsel people against it, tell others about how it will not satisfy; proclaim that it will make you distant from God and pollute your heart, but then walk out the door and experience a very powerful temptation toward lust?
Why is it that I can be convinced that lying is wrong, but then lie in order to save face over a seemingly insignificant issue?
Why is it that I can know that gossip will break and not make a relationship, but then find myself entering into it with pleasure?
It is because God’s word, his instruction, doesn’t just reveal his beauty and goodness. It reveals my sinful heart. That’s our second point.
God’s Word Exposes Our Fallen Nature
After celebrating the goodness of God’s word as the means of being blessed by obeying it, verse 5 gives us a reality check. Here the psalmist says, “Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes.” This statement, following on the statement in verse 4 that God has commanded that his precepts be kept carefully, shows us three things.
In the first place, it shows us that the psalmist strongly desires to obey the Lord. He wants to carefully observe the law of God. Why? That leads us to the the second thing that this verse shows us: the psalmist is keenly aware that he should keep God’s statutes carefully. God’s instruction isn’t optional. It is foundational. It isn’t one good option among many other good options; it is the only path of life. The law is not how he will make his life better but how he will have life. Lastly, verse 5 shows us that the psalmist knows that he doesn’t keep the law as he is commanded. His cry is not, “I am so glad that I carefully keep your statutes!” But “Oh that my ways ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes.”
Why is this his desire? Verses 6-7 give us the answer. In short, disobedience to God leads to shame but upright adherence to the law leads to joyful praise before God because he is accepted before God. If his eyes are firmly fixed on all of God’s commandments, then he won’t be put to shame.
By shame he doesn’t merely mean embarrassment. He means the shame that will drive him away from God. Do you remember what Adam and Eve do when they sin against God? They are overcome by shame and run from him. Shame before God is recognition that we deserve his judgment. Standing before God, then, becomes impossible. Knowing and enjoying God becomes impossible. This is what sin does and the psalmist knows it. He wants to stand with a clean heart before God because he knows that’s the greatest joy and treasure to have, but he knows he can’t.
If he was steadfast in keeping God’s statutes, then he would not feel this shame. Instead, as verse 7 shows us, he would be able to stand with an upright and clean heart before God, feeling God’s pleasure, and praising God as one who knows (meaning that he hears and does) the righteous rules of God. An upright, clean heart is free to enjoy God because he is free from the fear of judgment.
We Want to Praise God with a Clean Heart—But Can’t
The psalmist wants to be totally free in his praise of God but he knows that his sin stands in the way. He sees that the law is good, but he also sees that he isn’t keeping it. And he knows that his praise—his joy and wonder in the beauty and glory of God—will always be with a broken heart because of his sin. Like the prophet Isaiah writes in Isaiah 59:1-2,
“Behold, the LORD’S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”
Sin separates us from God. And when you look deeply at God’s law, what you find are good commands. What you find is wisdom. But, like walking into a room full of beautiful, shining, displays of gold, you will enjoy the beauty of the objects, but as you look at them closely you will also see your reflection in them—and you do not like what you see.
This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 7. In Romans 7, Paul is arguing that the law of God is good, but that it is unable to make you good. Rather, it shows you your sin and your inability to free yourself from your sin. God’s law shows us our sin problem. But more than that. It shows us that our problem is not simply that we sin. It shows us that our problem is that we are sinners. What does that mean? It means that not only do I rebel against God in my actions but that I am a rebel against God through and through.
God’s Word is like water. We all know that water is good. We need it. If there was no water, there would be no life. Yet someone can take water, which is good, and use it for suicide or in order to murder another person.
God’s commands reveal my sin, but it isn’t God’s law that kills me. It is my sin that uses God’s law to kill me. Romans 7 makes this point by referencing his own life of trying to obey the law before he knew Christ. Paul writes in in Romans 7:5, “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” Sinful passion, desire for sin, is exacerbated by God’s commands. He goes on to specify in Romans 7:7-8, “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.” Our sinful nature, upon hearing God’s commands, wants to disobey God’s command. We feel like we are caught in the middle. Recognizing that it is good, we want to obey. But because we are fallen, we choose to sin. This is why we read in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Paul, in sharing his own story before he came to faith in Christ, tells the whole story of humanity. He is telling your story whether you know it or not.
Like a child, upon hearing that an authority figure wants something done in a certain way, intentionally does it the opposite way. Why? To assert himself against the authority. Our sickness is that instead of enjoying God’s glory and being full in him, we demand to invent our own glory. Sin is rejection God’s glory in an attempt to have our own. But you have a greater chance of living without water than you do of having life outside of God. What, then, are we to do? God’s Word once again directs us.
God’s Word Points Us to God’s Mercy
Verse 8 communicates two realities for us.
First, reflecting on the goodness of God’s Word should lead us to pursue obedience. And second, we must pursue obedience in humble dependence on God’s mercy. We see his commitment to obedience as he declares, “I will keep your statutes,” and the humble dependence on God’s mercy as he also pleads, “Do not utterly forsake me.”
In reading verse 8, I cannot help but see this as an Old Testament version of Romans 7:24-25. In Romans 7, Paul, like the Psalmist in Psalm 119, sees his shortcomings in light of God’s good law. This causes him to declare and ask, ““Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” His dilemma led him to look for a deliverer. In Romans 7:25, he names his deliver by saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
As the psalmist pleaded mercy not to be forsaken, Paul rejoiced because he saw the grounds by which he would not be forsaken: Jesus Christ. He is the Savior who is forsaken on behalf of all who place their trust in him. In Romans 8:1, Paul points to Jesus as the basis of his hope, declaring “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Why is there no longer any condemnation for those in Christ Jesus? Because, as he goes on to write in Romans 8:2-3, God did through Christ what the law could not do: justify the guilty. The sin that is revealed by the law, which is the sin that condemns us and separates us from God, is finally and decisively dealt with by the Cross of Christ. The sin that brings you shame and separates you from God? In Christ, it is atoned. It is paid. It is undone. Your sin and your sinfulness that divides you from God is taken away by Jesus, God the Son incarnate. Jesus went to the cross to pay the penalty for sin and he rose from the grave showing that it is paid in full. You can have forgiveness, you can be free from condemnation, and you can know that you will not be utterly forsaken because Jesus was forsaken for you and now lives for you. This can be yours when you are united to Jesus by faith in him.
But There is More…
But there is more. When you are united to Jesus by faith, not only is your sin dealt with, but, as Romans 8:2-4 says , now the righteous requirement of the law is also fulfilled in us as we walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:4). That is to say, Jesus is condemned so that all who are in Christ by faith may be enabled to fulfill the law.
How can you actually be able to fulfill the law? The reason goes back to the Cross. The reason there is no condemnation for those in Christ is because the Spirit of God has set us free from the powers of sin and death. By faith in Christ, you are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into a new creation. Christ’s death not only frees us from the penalty of sin but from the power of sin.
You are transformed because you are forgiven, and you are forgiven in order that you may be transformed step by step, from one degree of glory to the next.
Make no mistake at this point. Obedience is not what makes you forgiven; it is your forgiveness that enables you to be obedient to God from the heart.
What Does This All Mean for You?
This has incredible significance for you, Christian. You can more fully live out Psalm 119:8 because of Jesus. Now you can commit to obedience as you live secure in God’s mercy because Christ was forsaken for you.
What does committing to obedience look like as you depend on the mercy of God? Romans 8:4-5 and Galatians 5:16 give us a clear idea.
Romans 8:4-5 tells us why Christ died for us by saying that it was “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”
These two verses tell us that those who live according to the Spirit fulfill the law. When you place your faith in Christ, you receive the Spirit of God and are enabled to walk in accord with the Spirit. Fulfilling the law, then, is a work of the Spirit that happens in the heart of the believer. Obedience is rooted in the Spirit’s transforming work in the heart of the Christian.
Galatians 5:16 makes a similar point. There we read, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
There are two important realities for us to grasp here.
First, you can have the Spirit of God and still walk in the flesh. It is possible to be forgiven, belong to Christ, and to obey the desires of the flesh. In Christ, you are forgiven. You are a new creation. You are being transformed for the new creation, but you are not done yet. There is still a level at which you do the things that you hate and do not do the things that you want to do. Christ has dealt with the penalty of your sin and released you from the overwhelming grip of your sin nature, but that does not mean that you will not submit yourself to the yoke of sin again.
What’s the second reality? You are free from the power of sin because you have the Spirit of God by faith in Christ. That means you can walk in the Spirit and, by doing this, you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the Christian, there is a war going on in your very being, but it isn’t an even battle. Verse 16 gives us an incredible promise: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Before Christ, the flesh overpowered you and you had to yield to it. You could not say no to the sin desired by your flesh. But now, in Christ, you do not have to yield to the flesh. Now you can yield to the Spirit of God at work in you.
In Christ, your relationship to sin dramatically changes. Sin is now like an old boss that can call you up on the phone and say, “come in and work a shift for me today.” You don’t have to do it. He has no power over you now. But there remains lingering affection for your old boss, so you are tempted to do it. What you need to know is that you do not have to. You do not need to. And you shouldn’t.
What’s the Connection?
What these two passages have in common is the call to live in accord with the Spirit and the call to walk by the Spirit. They also have in common the corresponding result: you will obey the word of God.
So how do you live in accord with the Spirit? How do you walk by the Spirit? It begins by receiving the Spirit through faith in Christ. It continues as you yield to his voice—and you hear his voice in the Scripture.
So to whom are you listening? Everyday you are pouring yourself into a mold by which you will be formed. Scripture is like a mold that God provides for you to pour yourself into so that you may be formed into the likeness of Christ. This is not just about actions. Pouring yourself into the mold of Scripture shapes your beliefs, feelings, desires, affections, and yes, your actions.
What is shaping your beliefs? What is forming your affections? Brothers and sisters, Christ has set us free. He empowers you to walk in freedom. Walk in freedom and enjoy the God who makes known to us the path of life and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore.